Mark 16:8. The end.

And they went out and fled from the tomb, for trembling and astonishment had seized them, and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.”

So ends Mark’s Gospel as we have it.

  1. What are we to make of the “Longer Ending” in v9-20 and/or other suggested endings?

  2. How do we make sense of the ending in v8, if it is the real ending?

 

  1. What are we to make of the “Longer Ending” in v9-20 and/or other suggested endings?

We have various suggested endings from ancient sources, but the earliest and best manuscripts of Mark simply end with the statement above. We don’t possess the original manuscript, in Mark’s own handwriting. We have copies. And sometimes those copies are mistaken. They are slightly different from each other- a word is spelt differently, or even a whole verse inserted. Usually, it isn’t too difficult to sort out which copies are the accurate ones. You arrange the manuscripts into families- a little like evolutionary tree families- except that here you are starting with the correct premise that they were copied from each other, not the incorrect premise that they were copied from each other. You look for similarities, and you also take into account where the manuscripts were found and what was found with them, and you try to trace back the differences until you reach the source of each difference. And then you can see which version was the change and which was the original.

Here though, we have a very unusual problem; a number of variants, especially a long passage which is there is some manuscripts and not in others. The two oldest reliable manuscripts end at v8. But other manuscript traditions contain some more verses, most of them having v9-20 (known as the “Longer Ending”) and a very few of them having just 34 more words (known as the “Shorter Ending”). Some have both; the “Shorter” followed by the “Longer”. The “Shorter Ending” tells us how the women took the news to the disciples, and then Jesus himself sent out the proclamation of eternal salvation into all the world through the disciples. The “Longer Ending” is included in most English translations along with a note to say that it is not in the earliest manuscripts.

For the sake of argument, assume that you (like me) think that the extra bits on the end are not original. You can see how it could have happened. A scribe realised that Mark ends his Gospel rather abruptly and unexpectedly. The scribe didn’t understand why, and so he added a bit more, a postscript, an appendix, describing the teaching of the early church about what happened next. Most of the factual matter (almost all except a bit about drinking poison and handling snakes) in both endings is also given in Matthew, Luke, and John. It isn’t had to imagine a scribe, or a committee of scribes, adding an ending on to finish what seemed to them unfinished, and their ending gradually becoming widely used and accepted.

But if you assume that the longer ending is original to Mark, then the manuscripts we have which contain it must be copies of manuscripts even earlier than the earliest ones we have. And, harder to explain, the early manuscripts we have which don’t contain it must have been unfinished, and for some reason both end in the same place.

The church fathers up to about AD 400 seem to indicate that the longer ending was not known widely among them, and was not regarded as original where known. To the best of my judgement so far, Mark ended his Gospel at verse 8.

 

  1. How do we make sense of the ending in v8, if it is the real ending?

Some people have agreed that Mark finished at verse 8, on the grounds of the manuscript evidence outlined above, but they can’t understand why he would end so abruptly, and why he wouldn’t mention the resurrection appearances or any of that. So they hypothesise that Mark was forced to finish early- Mark’s Gospel talks a lot about persecution, and we know that Christians across the Roman Empire were persecuted. Maybe, they say, Mark was executed while his work was still unfinished. Or maybe Peter was executed, and Mark stopped writing for a while in order to gather more information from other eyewitnesses, and never managed to finish his Gospel.

The reaction of the women to the angel’s announcement comes as little surprise. Mark has repeatedly shown us people being afraid of Jesus when they see him plainly as more than a mere man. The disciples were “filled with great fear” when he calmed the storm (4:41). Those who saw the Gerasene demoniac clothed and in his right mind “were afraid” (5:15). The woman suffering from bleeding, “knowing what had happened to her, came in fear”, and Jesus tells Jairus not to fear too (5:33,36). The disciples who see Jesus walking on the sea “were terrified” (6:50). The three disciples who are taken onto the mount, when they see Jesus transfigured before them, “were terrified” (9:6). They have seen an angel, and heard of a risen Lord. Fear is natural.

But why does Mark end with this? It seems bizarre in more ways than one. Why, having named the women three times and identified them as the key witnesses to the resurrection, would he then end his Gospel by saying that they said nothing to anyone? Why recount the angel’s message to the disciples, and Jesus’ promise to meet them in Galilee, but then not tell us how that meeting took place?

More importantly than that, why not give us any account of the resurrection appearances at all? Mark’s readers know that the women did tell their tale in the end, know that Jesus did meet with his disciples- they are part of the early church which grew out of the preaching of the resurrection of the Christ. But why does Mark not show us the risen Lord?

Jesus had spoken about his resurrection to his disciples, but they had not understood him at all. They thought that he would establish a kingdom before he died, and refused to consider the possibility of death for the Messiah. We have seen that this is one of the central themes to Mark’s Gospel; the way that nobody understood that Jesus came to die.

Mark has shown Jesus coming as Messiah; the King, yes, but a King who will reign over a new Israel, an Israel who have had their hearts turned to love God and repent of their sins. And so he has not cast out Romans; he has cast out demons. He has not brought prosperity to Israel and made the nations pay tribute; he has brought peace to all nations. He feeds the 5000, the army of Israel- and has enough left for all the 12 tribes. And he feeds the 7000, all the nations of the earth, and has enough left to give food to the four corners of the earth. And he excites fierce opposition from those who call themselves Israelites, but who do not love God, instead serving themselves and growing fat on their positions as leaders of God’s people.

And then Jesus shows himself in heavenly glory to three disciples- the inner circle- but they still don’t understand the nature of his kingdom, the sort of king he is. And he tells them not to tell anyone else what they had seen until after the Son of Man has risen from the dead.

He teaches the disciples about his way- the way of leadership by suffering and self-sacrifice- and he predicts his death to them three times. And it bounces off them. They are confused. And at the root, they still seem to assume that Jesus will set up an earthly kingdom, and they will get to be his advisers.

They all head to Jerusalem, and the same things happen as in the earlier parts of the Gospel- but more so. The leaders confronting Jesus are the national leaders, who speak for the nation as a whole, not just local Scribes and Pharisees any more, but the Sanhedrin. And Jesus pronounces judgement upon them.

And then they take Jesus, and kill him. And the disciples all flee. They don’t know what to do. Having promised loyalty to Jesus, they scatter- just as Jesus himself had said they would, quoting Zechariah, “You will all fall away, for it is written, ‘I will strike the shepherd and the sheep will be scattered.’ But after I am raised up, I will go before you to Galilee.”

And nobody had understood that Jesus would actually change things forever. he wouldn’t be a saviour like the Judges, who pushed back the enemies for a while, and then died. He wouldn’t be an “anointed one” like a good king who could reform the nation and uphold God’s laws for a while, but then die and have his influence die with him. He would die, but his death would not be a defeat, not a cause for mourning. It would be a victory. We’ve seen that in the response of the centurion, “surely this man was the Son of God.” The death of Jesus, and his victory in death, is where Mark has been heading since the first verse he wrote. Why then does he only talk so briefly about the resurrection, and not actually show us the risen Jesus?

We’ve argued before that Mark’s Gospel is taken from Peter’s account. Peter had his set form to present the story of Jesus, much of it learned from Jesus himself. Any congregation taught by Peter could probably have recited many small accounts of Jesus’ different doings and a summary of his life. Before Mark wrote it down for the early Christians, they’d heard the material many times as oral presentations. Jewish rabbis habitually taught in memorable phrases which they’d received from other rabbis. Spontaneity and originality were not qualities valued by the rabbinic tradition. Faithfulness to the traditions of the fathers was. Rabbis received things and passed them on. In the NT, the apostles continued this method. Peter preaches in Acts 10, and Luke gives a summary of his sermon, which is pretty much an account of Jesus’ life. Peter begins with Jesus’ baptism, goes on to Galilee and miracles and doing good, and ends with Jerusalem and death and resurrection. From Acts, this seems to be Peter’s routine presentation. This is the standard way he preaches the Gospel. The structure is similar to Mark, and the reason is almost certainly that Mark drew on Peter for the bulk of his source material. All the evidence is that this is Peter’s book, and Mark is Peter’s interpreter, putting down what Peter preached, with explanatory notes. But there is one big difference. Peter didn’t leave the women at the tomb. Peter talks about the resurrection appearances. Mark doesn’t.

Why would he do that? If you were writing a Gospel, where would you end it? With Jesus death? With his resurrection appearances? With the ascension? With the day of Pentecost? With evidences of Jesus’ continuing presence with the Church? Luke opts for the ascension. That is the impression he wants to leave us with- Jesus going up into heaven to be seated at his Father’s right hand. Luke then produces a second volume, beginning with the ascension and going right up to the work of the kingdom being established in Rome among the Gentiles. Matthew goes for the great commission- Jesus final words to his troops. That is the impact he wants to make at the end. John tells us about various resurrection appearances, including some in Galilee, where Jesus eats fish and speaks with the disciples. Mark ends with the women running away from the tomb in fear and amazement.

2 reasons…

Firstly, Mark wants to leave us with the fact of the empty tomb. The women saw that there was no body there. The body was gone- and who had taken it? Not the disciples- they were hiding away in a locked room together. Not the Romans or the Jews- they would have no reason to do so, and if they had, they would produce it pretty quick to silence any dangerous rumours about a man being raised from the dead.

Many have tried to disprove the resurrection- the disciples stole the body, or the Jews stole the body, or Jesus did not really die, but swooned and revived. But none of that is even remotely convincing. It bears all the marks of people who don’t want to believe in the resurrection, desperately trying to convince themselves that it didn’t happen. The fact of the growth of the church alone disproves it. You have the men who had fled from Jesus, regrouping, and standing firm in the face of death themselves- fighting to establish a kingdom not along the lines of the one they’d always had in their minds before the resurrection, but of the kingdom not of this earth which Jesus came to usher in. Where did they get their new vision? Where did they get the new power which accompanied it? Why were they willing to live lives of poverty and pain, ending in frequently painful death, because of it? Look at Paul- he gave up a stellar career as a Rabbi and Jewish theologian to become a man despised by all- and he considered it joy. Why? Answer- because Jesus was risen, Jesus appeared to him, and he did it because he loved his Lord and wanted to serve him, and considered it an honour to be like him in suffering. Had the resurrection not happened, Jesus would be no more than a line in Josephus’ antiquities, and probably not even that. The empty tomb is a huge problem to solve for those who would deny the resurrection, and Mark leaves us at a full stop with that fact.

And secondly, Mark is emphasising the fear and amazement felt by the first disciples when they first realised that Jesus was risen. Mark, I think, is quite far-sighted in so doing. We read the verses- at least I read the verses, and unless I think about it, they don’t hit me with fear and amazement. Because I know what happened. I already knew the ending before I started reading. It’s like an Agatha Christie- ever read any? Detective novels, where there’s a murder, and nobody knows whodunnit. It must have been one of this small group of people, because they were all locked up in a deserted country house in the middle of nowhere at the time. And the plot develops, and just as you start to suspect somebody, Christie kills them off. And only on the last few pages does the great detective gather everyone into the drawing room, and point the finger to the murderer, and explain how he knows they did it, and they break down and confess just as the policemen burst out from behind the curtains where they were hiding to arrest them. The way to ruin the book is to skip to the last few pages and read them first. Because then you know who it is all along, and it seems obvious, and the big surprise at the end that it was actually the butler all along lacks the required punch.

So with Mark. We all know that Jesus rose from the dead- and we spot the “clues” all the way through- although they’re not meant to be subtle clues. Jesus says plainly that this is how it ends. But the disciples didn’t know. And Mark wants us to feel their surprise as we read. They are terrified. They don’t know what’s going on. And this is stressed so that we who might read the resurrection as an expected and even a necessary occurrence, instead are left with the impression of the women’s trembling, astonishment, fear, as we read the final words of the Gospel.

This fear is always the response of men and women to God, and Mark has consistently told us so. When people see God’s power breaking in, they are afraid. The disciples were afraid when Jesus calmed the storm. There they all were on the boat, thinking that they were going to die- and Jesus wakes up and speaks the word- and bang! Like a millpond. And then, when it’s all quiet, then they are afraid, and they say to each other, “Who is this, that even the wind and the waves obey him.” The Gerasenes were afraid when Jesus delivered Legion. They saw him clothed and in his right mind, and they were afraid. The three disciples on the mount of transfiguration were afraid. Peter said “Rabbi, it is good for us to be here, why don’t we make three tents, one for you, one for Elijah and one for Moses”, because he didn’t know what to say, because they were terrified. The disciples were afraid when they saw Jesus setting his face toward Jerusalem, to clash with the leaders there. As Jesus shows his majesty and power as the Son of God, people are astonished and afraid.

And that is the nature of a true response to Jesus. Mark has written this Gospel, and has begun it by telling us who Jesus is- the Son of God. He has made us ask again and again- who is this? What is he like? And he has answered those questions. We need to come to see Jesus with awe and wonder, to see who he is- the Son of God, come among men, living and dying and rising again for the redemption of all who come to him.

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